Beverley Ware works from home, often doing many journalistic tasks at once. (Photo: Courtney Zwicker)

Does multitasking mean better journalism?

Scientists, journalists consider if quality at risk

Beverley Ware sits in the courtroom waiting for the action to begin. Her pencil is firmly gripped, and her iPhone not far out of reach.

During the proceedings she takes a few notes, and tweets the juicy stuff. The trial is coming to an end. The verdict is about to be announced.

Ware is  at court for the Chronicle Herald, in Bridgewater, Nova Scotia. Her thumbs are typing at warp speed and her Twitter followers are paying close attention. Reply, reply, reply. Compose Tweet. Two characters left but so many things to say. Delete, delete, delete. Re-type, leaving out the words “a” and “the”. The guilty verdict has been declared and her followers are satisfied.

But, did Ware miss any details while her eyes were on the screen?

On Sept. 26, 2013, Ware covered the council hearing for a Lunenburg County man who wanted to build a recycling facility on municipality land. She published 29 tweets at the seven hour event.

“My head is going many different directions when I’m covering a story,” she says.

Ware is the South Shore bureau chief of the Chronicle Herald. She has worked for the paper for 10 years, and is based in Bridgewater. Her daily duties include generating ideas for multiple sections of the paper, filing stories throughout the day – including her own photos and video – and updating social media with any interesting events.

“You don’t have the luxury of crafting your story anymore,” she says, using Blue Tooth while driving.

Ware is one of the many reporters working hard to keep up with the industry’s social media changes. Today’s journalist is expected to handle more tasks than ever. With these added jobs, and fewer workers in newsrooms to take them on, something has to give.

“When you multitask, you get worse at all of the tasks.”

– John Christie, Dalhousie University professor

In 2010 New Yorker Peter Bregman, author of 18 Minutes: find your focus, conducted a study on multitasking. He concluded people lose 40 per cent productivity while working on more than one task. The same study also found multitasking causes a 10 per cent drop in IQ. This could mean journalists aren’t as observant, because they are too distracted by their cameras and cellphones.

John Christie is critical of multi-tasker performance. The professor of psychology and neuroscience at Dalhousie University specialized in the field of memory and attention span. “When you multitask, you get worse at all of the tasks,” he says.

According to Christie, the brain isn’t focusing on two different tasks at a time. The brain is constantly switching between tasks. This is called task switching.

Christie says that when you’re switching, you have two options: you can either work on task A until completion, then task B, or you can do a little of some, then a little of the other, and switch.

Switching changes what’s working in the short term memory and the orientation of your attention. This happens many times when a person is multitasking. The time between the two tasks slows down performance. “There is no situation where switching makes things faster,” says Christie.

Some believe the pressures of multitasking, along with the immediacy of social media, have not only complicated the lives of reporters, but contributed to errors in major stories. Coverage of the Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting in Newtown, Conn. in 2012 contained many mistakes, including the identity of the shooter, the type of weapon used, and the relationship of the shooter to the school.

The New York Times wrote an explanation to readers in which public editor Margaret Sullivan admitted, “There was layer upon layer of extraordinarily damaging false information.”

Ware says she guards against making mistakes by checking facts with two or three sources before putting them on social media or writing them into a story.

“You’re getting the info out that you have at that time,” she says, “and the person telling you believes it to be true, but you may find out later it isn’t true. But at the time obviously you don’t know that.”

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“Everybody understands that employers want to squeeze more juice out of the lemon, because they have less money and more space to fill.”

– Keith Maskell, Canadian Media Guild [/pullquote]

Keith Maskell says news organizations concerned with releasing information first, rather than accuracy, are doing a disservice to the public. Based in Toronto, Maskell works for the Canadian Media Guild. His aim: to protect the rights of Canadian journalists.

When journalists are doing the first reports on breaking news, Maskell says, the information is often wrong. He is concerned that journalists are being taken advantage of in their newsrooms. “Everybody understands that (employers) want to squeeze more juice out of the lemon, because they have less money and more space to fill.”

He believes there are limits to how far an employee can be pushed in a given number of hours and for a certain salary. Maskell says journalists have little say in the work they’re allowed to refuse. Under the law, the only time a reporter can refuse to do the work is if it’s deemed physically unsafe. And it’s only going to get worse.

“What we’re seeing now with the growth of social media is more expectation. A journalist has to stand up and say, ‘Okay, you have to realize the time I’m spending doing this is time I’m not spending writing this story you’re not paying me much to tell.’ A lot of news providers seem to be saying that content quality doesn’t matter anymore, it’s volume that matters.”

Smaller budgets mean fewer editors play a role in the preservation of quality and accuracy in news.

Small community newspapers are struggling to keep their operations in order on tight budgets. Rachel Psutka worked at the Casket – a weekly newspaper in Antigonish, N.S. – for a year. The newspaper has a readership of 20,000 over four counties. Psutka is a recent graduate of the photojournalism program at Loyalist College in Belleville, Ontario. She was hired for the job at the Casket under the title of “multimedia journalist”. The job turned out to include all of the duties of a regular reporter, with the added responsibility of dealing with videos and photographs.

“I stayed late, I worked harder. There were times when I shot video, and at the end of the day I just didn’t put the video together because either there wasn’t enough footage or enough time to process the footage,” she says.

Today, Psutka works at the Leader Post in Regina as an interactive reporter. She works with a small team to tie stories together with multimedia and put them on the web. She likes the way her new job is organized.

Though national news organizations may have a larger budget, they aren’t exempt from staffing struggles. Postmedia Network Inc. publishes the National Post and nine other metropolitan daily newspapers. Postmedia in 2012 announced it aimed to cut $120 million from its costs over three years. Sun Media has cut hundreds of jobs over the last several years, while the Toronto Star and the Globe and Mail have both resorted to buyouts and outsourcing to reduce costs.

Kevin Ward is Atlantic Bureau Chief of the Canadian Press (CP). He is facing resource issues in his newsroom.

“It’s unrealistic to think we’re going to have people that specialize in every aspect of journalism. Frankly, the money just isn’t there,” says Ward.

He has been working for CP since he started out in Toronto in 1987 as a reporter. Today in Halifax he has 12 staff working for him, including reporters, editors and photographers. Reporters at his bureau are responsible for writing, broadcast audio, script for audio and video for certain stories.

CP is owned by Torstar Corporation, the Globe and Mail and Square Victoria Communications Group. The Canadian Press is a for-profit organization, making money from clients. Ward says the organization used to be divided into two branches: Broadcast News and the Canadian Press. In the late nineties they merged and print reporters began making audio, while radio reporters wrote stories. Eventually these were blended into one regular reporter position. Ward says that though the workload has increased, CP has experienced staff cutbacks in recent years.

“The key is to keep our eye on the quality to make sure we’re not spreading ourselves too thin,” he says.

Kevin Ward says its unrealistic to think we'll have people who specialize in every aspect of journalism. (Photo: Courtney Zwicker)
Kevin Ward says reporters can’t be specialists at everything. (Photo: Courtney Zwicker)

Bill Grueskin is concerned journalism students are getting the wrong message about what employers are looking for in reporters. In 2012, the professor of journalism at Columbia University wrote an article for the Nieman Journalism Lab entitled News orgs want journalists who are great at few things, rather than good at many. In the piece he explains the term “Swiss Army knife” journalist – a popular name for multitasking journalists.

“The Swiss Army knife is a useful tool on camping trips, but you’d be unlikely to use one in your kitchen if you have a great paring knife or corkscrew nearby,” says Grueskin.

He says journalism schools who give students rudimentary training in a large number of platforms are providing little of value to their students.

“I think the key thing for a young journalist is to develop a keen understanding of the level of research, narrative flow, and understanding of a beat,” says Grueskin. “For a young journalist to skip over those skills to learn how to use a technology is a big error. Journalists who can’t do those fundamental things don’t do very well in their careers.”

Vernon Oickle has been the editor of the Progress Bulletin in Bridgewater, Nova Scotia, for almost two decades. Over this time, he has hired people with no training in journalism. “You can teach a reporter to write, but you can’t teach a writer to report,” says Oickle.

He believes today’s journalists should prepare themselves with a well-rounded skill set to be successful. “Even in print media these are the requirements you would need down the road because it really is the way of the future, even us old guys know that. You gotta work your tail off,” says Oickle.

The Chronicle Herald’s Ware – the self-proclaimed world’s worst photographer – says she has become more comfortable with looking at stories as complete packages with multimedia components. “I’m thinking beyond print,” she says. “It makes me a better reporter.”

Ware covered the case of a teenage boy who was chained in a cabin for two weeks in rural Nova Scotia. The day Ware interviewed the boy’s mother, Ware gained a new appreciation for video. The mother’s face was not shown on the recording, but the power behind her words were powerful enough to carry the interview. “It just all made sense,” Ware says.

Although she finds it “very draining” to pull two or three long days straight, she “cannot imagine filing stories at the end of the day like old times.

“I need that adrenaline,” says Ware.

The new challenges facing journalism are captured by Ware’s Twitter account name; @CH_Warewithall.

Edit/Layout by Emily Hiltz
Spring 2014